Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Review of Not Even Dogs: hay(na)ku poems by Ernesto Priego

(Meritage Press, 2006, www.meritagepress.com)

by Joey Madia

In the past six months I have reviewed several works by Eileen Tabios and authors associated with Meritage Press that employ the Tabios-invented poetic technique of hay(na)ku. Simply put, the form is tercets consisting of one-, two-, and three-word lines. One can also reverse the order.

I say “simply put” because authors are taking this form and working with it in myriad ways to make it their own. Ernest Priego’s Not Even Dogs was, at the time of its printing, the first single-author book of hay(na)ku (or, in Spanish, jáinakú).

The Foreword by Mark Young (co-editor of the first hay(na)ku anthology) and the Afterword by Eileen Tabios elucidate the history and methodology behind the hay(na)ku form, so I will refrain from saying any more about it here.

Not Even Dogs is divided into three subject-matter sections: Mornings, Territories, and Cities. It is neatly laid out, with design and typesetting by Michelle M. Bautista and compelling cover art by Rodrigo Priego. I also found it interesting that the poems in the first two sections are not titled, but are instead delineated by the first several words of the poem set off in brackets and bold-faced, like an index of first lines. At times these pseudo-titles function as mini-meditations of their own.

The poems of Mornings and Territories operate like prayers and self-assessments (calling to mind the poetry of McKuen and Kerouac), referencing both directly and indirectly, Buddhism, haiku, koans, quantum physics, Tao, and the like, with lines such as:

poem is
more than this

world in
a sand grain

heaven in
a wild flower (p. 16)

Grass moving slowly
the sculpture
watches (p. 45)

I have grown accustomed to the artist reflecting on one’s art through the art itself as part and parcel of the Meritage Press philosophy, and Priego does it as well as anyone I’ve read thus far. He also works with similar metaphorical themes as, for instance, Jean Vengua in Prau (which was published a year after Not Even Dogs), when he employs nautical imagery:

A writer is
a sailor,

considering wreckages, […] (p. 22)

The final section, Cities, comprises 10 poems, counted down from Tenth City to First City. The cities are never named, but the poems provide clues as to which they are. This added aspect functions to make the reader a more active participant in the process, another recurring theme in the Meritage Press philosophy that I have come to expect and enjoy.

It should be noted that Not Even Dogs is Ernesto Priego’s debut poetry collection. I look forward to more from not only Mr. Priego, but from Meritage Press and Eileen Tabios as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

“Swimming in the Cathedral”: A Review of Vernon Frazer’s Improvisations

(Beneath the Underground, 2005, $45.00)

Improvisations is a scary big book. At 700 pages it is far afield from your typically slim volume of poetry. Frazer uses the length and breadth of this master-work to cover an immense amount of typographical and etymological ground, and he has the freedom to repeat a variety of themes for emphasis and effect. At times the passages are so slightly, subtly revised as to be almost unnoticed. But the structure here is akin to Pollock’s drip paintings or the works of East Coast wordsmith Marc Sonnenfeld—Frazer “denies the accident” and one gets the sense that moving one word, one symbol, one line would collapse the entire structure.

It took me nine and a half months to read Improvisations, taking it in as I did in manageable, well-considered doses, like the potent intoxicant that it is. Not since I read Bob Dylan’s Tarantula many years ago have I felt so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words.

I hold the distinction of being the first person to buy it. For a little over three years it sat among my to-be-reads. Staring. Taunting. Daring.

“Don’t be a wuss,” it whispered. “Come swimming in the Cathedral.”

Cathedral, indeed. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Improvisations is a Gothic-like structure that makes one feel small among its arches of art and rose-window words. If Chartres were made of letters, webdings, and fonts it would look like this.

Improvisations is divided into 160 Roman-numeraled pieces that bring to mind Pound’s Cantos (although one piece is often continued [in thought if not in form] in the one that follows). Everything is Epic here, without being Elitist.

At times the text has a great deal of space, cascading along the pages in a great urgency of couplets and tercets and at other times there are solid blocks of text that cover the pages with half a thousand words. Initially quite daunting, the block text can be broken down into dozens of manageable phrases and ideas.

Along the way he employs glossolalia (speaking in tongues); pictograms; simple homonym word plays (“syntax/sin tax”); words and phrases that do what they say (tilting, dislocate, spread, vertical, slant, verbal sculpture, swelling, splatter) or do not (such as the word “neon” set in grayscale); and references a wide range of literary and other figures, both real and fictional, including: William S. Burroughs, Wilhelm Reich, Van Gogh, Elvis, Paracelsus, bin Laden, Oedipus, Proserpine, carol ghosts, pinball wizards, Dionysius, and Apollo.

Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is deconstructed and strewn throughout, at times coupled with Carl Jung and Lewis Carroll; the phrase “hoarse platitudes” calls to mind Jim Morrison’s “Horse Latitudes.”

Some of my favorite passages from Improvisations (and there are countless other gems):

“the arpeggiated strangulation of the vortex or Wichita” (p. 10); “the few who dared wring blood from ash with wine-stamp feet” (p. 12); “greasepaint smelling the crowd’s roar/intent on one clap handing its applause” (p. 46); “oral skill bought off the lips/of politicians” (p. 77); “Assuage the sins of commas where colonoscopy fears to tread” (p. 162); “the font shall proclaim independence from its linear enslavement” (p. 227); “A loose invective beats a leaf motif any day” (p. 615)

Piece VIII demonstrates the music of words. On p. 124 there is a two-column block of text where the left hand is inverted verbatim in the right hand column, necessitating that the reader read from the bottom up, right to left, creating a quantum physical outlay where matter reverses and loops back on itself. On pp. 158 and 160 one can read the three-column text either across or down each column. This is an impressively constructed work, the artistry of which cannot be taught. It is a vision.

The key to the cathedral for me was this recurring phrase:


[elaborated later as: “if you play (or write) long enough a form will assert itself”]

As we walk down the long aisles of the first 300 pages, drawing ever closer to the altar and the hidden chambers it hides, Frazer provides the direction, the recipe, the cipher along his own whimsical ley lines. And although we have to work for it, it seems he is playing Moriarty to our Holmes; it’s clear that he wants us to know.

What use would it be if we did not?

By p. 340 or so we are well inside, and the typography erupts with a full flowering of everything that has come before, and the visual begins to trump the lingual.

On p. 355 is a visually arresting piece that introduces the term “synesthesia,” which is, according to various Internet sources, a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experience in a second pathway. Similarly arresting pieces appear on pp. 450–451.

On p. 561, Frazer provides a layout that forces the reader to rotate the page numerous times to read and see everything he’s placed there. After all, anyone can listen to the sermon—the listener must also participate actively in the prayer. And lest we get too caught up in the words and forget our surroundings, the degree of textual overlap on p. 650 is a clear reminder that we mustn’t swim solely in the words.

The final page of the final piece ends with a large grayscale IS, over which are two eyes, an “I” and a small “as,” interpreted by this reader as “as I is/is as I” paralleling the Sanskrit Tat tuam asi—“Thou art that.”

Improvisations ends with a Prelude, where the author outlines his influences and explains his intentions. Think of it as the Bible you buy on the way out of the Cathedral—it is useful to the extent that it operates as a possible interpretation of all that has been already been experienced directly in the heart and soul. It is not to be taken as Gospel.

In a book of pure genius, it is this placement of the Prelude that ensures the journey’s worth all that it asks of us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review of Highest Hurdle Press’s Letterhead Vol. 2

Review of Highest Hurdle Press’s Letterhead Vol. 2

(Edited by Bradley Lastname, Christopher Robin, Brian McMahon, Robert Pomerhn, and Eric Johnt, Highest Hurdle Press, 2008)

{Disclaimer: Two of my poems appear in this collection. They are not mentioned in this review.}

In 2008 I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing Letterhead Volume #1. At the time I thought it quite the impressive undertaking, bringing together so many different types of poets from so many areas of the United States. Readers of that review (and that volume) will be pleased to know that Vol. 2 builds upon both the scope and quality of its predecessor, retaining all of its best qualities while striking new ground in content and form and offering what co-editor Bradley Lastname recently explained to me is a “…darker selection of work, because the times we live in are darker.”

Amen. Embroiled as we are in a time of ongoing wars and global economic and environmental crises (the key subjects explored), the role of the poet in our society, in our world, is perhaps more important than ever. The fact is, only the global and national community of poets can retake their place in society, by speaking their truth Individually, so that it then resonates with the Collective.

To me, this collection does exactly that. The opening essay, by co-editor Brian McMahon, asks at the end of its first paragraph: “what role is there for poetry?” Given the wide breadth of styles—vispo, talk poetry, visual art, word collages, mail art, wordplays, etc.—it is clear that poetry’s role is vast and multidimensional.

Vol. 2 consists of three sections. The first and last contain a mix of textual and visual poetry from dozens of poets and artists from across the U.S., while the middle section comprises works from the “underground poets of California’s west coast,” compiled by Christopher Robin, editor of the Santa Cruz–based zine Zen Baby.

The collection begins with co-editor contributions—a visually stunning multi-part poem by McMahon, followed by an edgy political piece by Eric Johnt. The poetry and visual art that follow in this first section cover a wide range of topics and approaches, culminating in a ten-page collage by Buffalo poet Robert Pomerhn (parts of which are used for the front and back covers).

Pomerhn’s vispo is ripe with irony, meaning, symbols, and layers, inviting multiple visits. His work gets increasingly more compelling with time.

As mentioned earlier, the middle section of Vol. 2 comprises poets from the California coast. The following is a taste of the dark declarations found within:

• From the introduction by Christopher Robin: “…keeping poetry socially relevant while never finding it necessary to be overtly political…” “determined to make our voices heard (in a society that has relegated poetry to the lowest form of art)”
• From Brian Morrisey: “we were children/who never minded/the taste/of our own blood.”
• From William Taylor Jr.: “My friend is a poet//which is to say//he is egocentric/half insane/and has no money”
• From Bert Glick: “Press 5/for incremental suicide/due to compulsive, self destructive behavior”
• From Nicole Henares: “The small mound of wet teeth/next to my pillow in a morning’s nightmare”
• From Eugenia Hepworth Petty: “Gather the hair from your labia/and make a nest for small rodents”
• From Nancy Gauquier: “…trapped in the stiff/boney cage of his terror,//like Hansel in the witch’s house”

The final section begins with eight pieces by Eric Johnt, encapsulating many of the styles of visual and textual poetry that comprise the book. Johnt’s range of expression in these media is impressive. Johnt, Marc Sonnenfeld, Lastname, and Pomerhn anchor the works of this last section, which charges forth with increasing edginess and energy, compelling the reader to complete this journey and, in Brechtian fashion, pick up and carry on.

Of special note are the final two pieces in Vol. 2—talk poetry by Eric Gelsinger (inspired by David Antin) and a summation of Letterhead as an idea and a movement by Robert Pomerhn, straightforwardly titled “LETTERHEAD BETTER BE READ.”

Again I say, Amen.

Copies of Letterhead, Vol. 2 can be purchased by e-mailing Bradley Lastname at bradleylastname@hotmail.com or Robert Pomerhn at pomerhn.robert@gmail.com

“Elizabeth’s Pain”: A Review of Ancient Rage, by Mary Lee Wile

(Published for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Society by Larson Publications, 1995, www.larsonpublications.com)

In the promotional material for this poetic and compelling book, Mary Lee Wile’s biography says that she “wrote this book as a way to fathom her own feelings of grief and rage at the loss of children.” The book’s dedication is to “The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” whose children, according to Wikipedia “‘disappeared’ during the [Argentinian] Dirty War, the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.”

It has been said that outliving one’s child is life’s most profound injustice, and the depth of emotion and meaning in the 144 pages of Ancient Rage are a testament to the deep river of sorrow that the parent of a dead child has to plumb the depths of.

Creating a successful narrative about New Testament matters is no easy task, as evidenced by the poor outcome of Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt, and Wile overcomes potential obstacles by letting the story tell itself virtually unencumbered. She carefully chooses her Emphases and Perspectives, which I will discuss briefly as the substance of this review.

Wile’s prose is woven together like a fine linen with historical facts, religious practice, and Biblical references. Her knowledge of Jewish practice and ritual is considerable, and makes for an educational as well as moving read.

The beheading of John the Baptist on orders of Herod by request of the infamous seductress Salome (who was operating on orders from her mother…) is a Biblical tale almost as well known as the crucifixion of Jesus, which also figures prominently here. One doesn’t have to be especially religious to embrace the themes that resonate through this book. A mother’s love, a child’s resistance and rebellion to his parents’ path and wishes, and the effects of the larger political world on the family unit are the main themes, and they are indeed Universal.

Wile does an excellent job of painting a rich and detailed picture of the landscape, practices, foods, fabrics, and daily lives of the people living in Elizabeth’s time. The scenes at the Jordan river, the Passover meals, and the preparation and consumption of the chief food and drink of the time are especially vivid, as are the Temple ceremonies presided over by Elizabeth’s husband, the High Priest Zachariah.

Readers interested in the mysterious group known as the Essenes, of which John was a member (and perhaps Jesus as well) will find a great deal of information in Ancient Rage about their practices and how they were perceived by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others of their time.

Elizabeth was the cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Wile’s exploration of the trajectory of their relationship from when their children are young, to the two men’s rise to “fame,” and the aging women’s dealing with their sons’ subsequent violent, unnatural and very public deaths provides the narrative spine of Ancient Rage and in the end, it all comes down to Faith.

The book opens well after the death of Jesus (Elizabeth is in her 90s and Mary in her 60s), with the provocative line, “‘What’s it like to drink your son’s blood?’” The two women had not seen each other for nine years, due in great part to Elizabeth’s anger at both God and Jesus for not intervening in John’s fate. The historical explorations of the relationship between Jesus and John—Were they rivals? How many of Jesus’ disciples were former followers of John?—are brought into sharp focus by Elizabeth’s feelings in Ancient Rage.

Another related, equally provocative piece of the puzzle that Wile explores is the question of just why Zachariah and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child late in life were answered. Was John merely a messenger for Jesus, to be sacrificed when he was no longer needed? Could God be so unfeeling and cruel? Anyone who has ever had a prayer answered only to see the ultimate outcome turn a seeming blessing into a scalding curse feels Elizabeth’s pain and prays along with her that God, through Wile, will provide an answer, but none comes.

Once more, it all comes down to Faith. As it must.

Ancient Rage, as both poetic meditation and philosophical treatise on God, parenthood, and loss, is a must read. It is as simple as that.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

“At Journey’s End…”: A Review of Timekeeper, by John Atkinson

(2008, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com)

By Joey Madia

Timekeeper is a modern parable, a journey of “re-imagined events” processed through the author’s memory onto the page. Part Kerouac’s On the Road, part Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, and all soul and spirit, John Atkinson shares with us the story of an Everyman hero who searches for the one thing most precious to a man—

His name.

Johnnyboy, who is unable to read, is 14 when the book opens. After another beating at the hands of the abusive father he calls Bugdaddy (who has already popped his eardrum with a slap and beaten him with a fanbelt), he takes to the road, heading physically and metaphorically westward from Virginia, in search of enlightenment.

Being “of the earth” in both his illiteracy and his part–Native American blood, Johnnyboy is full of metaphorical expressions. Speaking about Bugdaddy, he says to God (through Moses): “That man needs to be shot with sheep sh*t and sent to hell for stinking.” It should be noted that as Johnnyboy matures over the course of the chapters, his language becomes more literal, with metaphorical expressions diminishing until the final chapters, when his journey circles back to a place of balance between the best of what he was and the promise of what he yet will be.

On his cross-country trip he meets plenty of trouble and plenty of friends, all of whom spiral out from the central hub of his search like the multicultural spokes of a wheel. Early on, there is Chicken Bone, the African-American who he visits before leaving home; Simon and Minna, the kind Jewish couple who are heartbroken when he takes to the road too soon; and the pivotal character of Chief, a Native American who helps Johnnyboy on his spiritual quest by giving him mescal buttons and a new name (“Timekeeper”) before sending him to seek the Sacred Mountain.

On his way he meets the “great power” in the form of Check, a yellow-eyed and ill-tempered dog who becomes Timekeeper’s traveling companion, protector, and guide. As Timekeeper made his gas and food money odd-jobbin’ along the way, I began to think of George and Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, as Check’s ornery disposition makes things uncomfortable for his friend. Following this connection, the culminating scenes between the two near book’s end take the Of Mice and Men framework and turn it on its ear in provocative ways.

At this point, it’s important to spend some words about the Sacred Mountain in questing literature and how it resonates in Timekeeper. From Carlos Castaneda’s relationship with Don Juan to Black Elk’s Harney Peak and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s groundbreaking film Holy Mountain, the idea of the axis mundi (center of the world) as the connecting point between the higher and lower realms and the quest to get there and make the climb play a central role and Timekeeper honors this traditional in fine fashion. Because Johnnyboy has been ridiculed and/or beaten down by the three pillars of society—his family, his school, and his church—he has no choice but to look outside these societal structures for meaning and his purpose, or “name.”
His journey to the Sacred Mountain culminates with his arrival in Chapter 13. With all of the artistry and insight of Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Wade Davis, and Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Atkinson relates Timekeeper’s mescal-induced journey into the higher realms. This is a chapter you’ll want to read twice, as it represents the axis mundi of not only the narrator’s quest, but the book itself, as afterward Timekeeper takes to the road with Check once again to try and find Chief. Having received his visions, he wants help in making meaning of them, part of which will be receiving a new name.

As Timekeeper gets closer to California, Atkinson introduces his narrator to a new set of characters who subtly reinforce the changes at hand. Honoring the spiritual maxim that we “get what we need and meet who we must,” Timekeeper meets a voracious reader named Pete as well as Jeff and Martha, who represent the much longed-for balance of body and mind—Jeff is a second grade dropout who is an ace mechanic and Martha has a Ph.D.

I have no wish to tip the reader any further to the events that await Timekeeper as he arrives in the West. Each experience, each new person met, and each all-too-necessary death extends and strengthens all that I have thus far highlighted and, at journey’s end, we know that Timekeeper must begin again.

John Atkinson has shared a much-needed and vibrant story with us, through both embracing the spirit as it has been explored in the past and furthering its applicability to our own lives through his own particular lens.

I look forward to reading more.